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Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’: A flawed gem

Netflix’s 2021 live action remake of the beloved anime series “Cowboy Bebop” had big shoes to fill from the very beginning. However, while many anime adaptations tend to be just plain bad, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is actually entertaining to watch. Thanks in no small part to an excellent cast, some additional character development the original show lacked and fantastic action, this remake is actually quite good. In fact, this show is actually best watched without prior knowledge of the original series.

 

Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” is a full remake of the series, but still follows its storyline to an extent. For example, the first episode “Cowboy Gospel” roughly follows the plot of the first episode of the anime, “Asteroid Blues.” Both episodes follow bounty hunters Spike and Jet hunting a criminal named Asimov who uses a drug called bloody eye to power himself up. Both episodes also end with Asimov and his girlfriend Katerina being shot down by the police in space. While they have a similar plot outline and ending, they reach the same conclusion in different ways. The Netflix episode is emblematic of how the live action pays homage to the original source material by maintaining its plot outline, but adds just enough new material to keep an experienced audience watching.

 

Additional material in remakes tends to dilute or even disrespect the original material. In this instance, the additional material takes the form of character development which actually is an improvement upon the original source material, for the most part. For example, the character of Katerina, played by Lydia Peckham in the Netflix version, is the girlfriend of Asimov in the first episode. The character that she is based on from the anime had very little agency and took a backseat, primarily to her more violent partner. The audience also wasn’t given a lot of detail about her character; however, the Netflix remake expands her character, giving her a more active role with her partner. It also establishes her motivation as trying to get away from her controlling father. Her new backstory, more active role in the narrative and her genuine affection for Asimov gives Katerina a surprising amount of depth for a character who only appears in one episode. Her character also demonstrates how little changes and extra details can actually give a remake more depth than the original.

 

Katarina was not the only one to get a revamped personality in this remake. One of the most enduring criticisms of the original “Cowboy Bebop” is the character of Julia. Julia is the love interest of both Spike and his archenemy Vicious. She is the main motivation for the blood feud between the two rivals, yet in the original anime, Julia herself rarely appears and has little to no personality or backstory. To say Julia was a paperthin character is an understatement. She was almost a MacGuffin-like object, serving only to forward the main plot. However, in the Netflix remake, Julia, played by Elena Satine, has much more of a personality and is introduced in the first episode. The show gives Julia her own subplot with Vicious which explores their relationship and the politics within the criminal organization known as the Syndicate. Thankfully, she is not only given a subplot, but is actually given stuff to do. She is not simply a MacGuffin, but she is a real character with motivations of her own and the ability to act on her own. Her subplot focuses on her strained relationship with Vicious, who is controlling and egotistical, and her eventual decision to escape him.

 

While Julia really needed character development, other characters actually suffer from it. Specifically, Vicious, played by Alex Hassell, is a much more diluted version of his anime counterpart due primarily to additional screen time. Although Vicious is the show’s overarching villain in the original anime series, he did not appear until episode five. In the remake, Vicious appears at the end of episode one and is returned to every episode. Vicious’ character originally relies on a sort of mystique surrounding him that made him such a compelling character. In a sense, not knowing about the character made him that much more interesting. Although Hassell gives his all in his performance, the character’s increased screen time allows for more character development which ironically actually lessens the impact of Vicious. 

 

While the Netflix remake retains the character’s trademark ruthlessness, it also adds a lot more moments of weakness to him. In his subplot with Julia we see Vicious make increasingly rash decisions based on his desperation to protect his own life and Julia’s life. While this is arguably a more interesting motivation, it ultimately takes away from the mystique of the character. In the anime, Vicious really lived up to his name; he was ruthless and ambitious, but most importantly emotionless. He seemed to kill without mercy, which made him both a terrifying presence but also a unique counterpart to his rival Spike. But the show explores his relationship with Julia and by extension, explores Vicious’ emotions which ultimately weaken the effect of his character. Of course I can’t fault the show for exploring its characters and their relationships, however when comparing the original to his remake counterpart, Vicious just doesn’t live up to his name.

 

Most of the characters are like Vicious in the sense that they don’t quite live up to their anime counterparts. That being said, the remake has a great cast with excellent performances by John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine. These three core cast members may not live up to their animated counterparts, but they still give it their all in their performances. In particular, Cho’s performance is perhaps the closest to his anime counterpart as he embodies both the coolness and the inner tragedy of the character of Spike. His banter with Jet and Faye is funny but also in touch with the dynamics of the original show.

 

Another appealing quality of the new Netflix series is the action. The original show had a lot of great fight sequences with Spike’s fluid Bruce Lee-inspired Jeet Kune Do. This particular style of martial arts is retained in the Netflix remake. John Cho flexes his martial arts skills in extremely stylized and well choreographed fight sequences. This starts from the very first episode where Cho’s Spike takes out a group of casino robbers in a fight seemingly ripped straight out of a Bruce Lee movie. The moment where Spike knocks out an assailant by kicking a coin may be a bit cartoonish, but given the show’s source material is a little cartoonish, the action is easily forgivable. While it may not live up to some of the original’s more creative animated fights, watching John Cho kick ass is incredibly fun to watch.

 

One of the most noticeable departures from the original is the tonal shift. The original “Cowboy Bebop” was more of a somber series with a build up to dramatic action scenes. The first episode of the original series starts with a noir-esque flashback with Spike and the iconic rose in the puddle. The scene is captivating and accompanied by a sad tune. In contrast, Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” starts with the aforementioned casino fight scene which trades the somber mysterious flashback of the original for an action-packed kung fu fight scene. This is not to say that the new opening scene is bad or even worse than the original, it’s just setting a different tone for the overall series. In general, the new remake is much more action-oriented than the original and also more comedic. While the original series had its funny moments and even some funny episodes, it always returned to more somber themes. The new Netflix series is the inverse, with more comedic elements paired with fewer instances of deeper themes. 

 

A remake has to balance pleasing the fans of the original while simultaneously avoiding retelling the same story and therefore making it stale. The age-old cry of fans everywhere is “I want the same thing, but different.” Netflix’s remake of “Cowboy Bebop” does indeed tell the same story but different. It does avoid simply adapting the anime to live action beat for beat and also adds more to some of its characters, but ironically takes away elements from other characters. Weirdly, this show is best viewed by those who haven’t seen the original. Fans of the original will find very little new or interesting about the remake and purists might even decry the remake as blasphemy, but new viewers will find the show an entertaining action-packed romp. The show’s only major discredit is that it can’t live up to the original—the downfall of many a remake and ultimately a forgivable sin. 

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